MICHAEL DAVIS: Art School Confidential
The one thing you can count on in the comics business is people want to get in. By this I mean there are a zillion people who want to make comics their lifework. To some “comic books’ is a silly way to make a buck. Well forget them. Tell them to have a ham sandwich and shut up. I’m talking to all the young creators who want to make this their careers. I know a bit about this and if you allow me I would like to share some of what I know with you.
The first step on the road to comic immortality is education. I want to talk to the young artists out there. I will let my good friend Mike Baron in a guest column talk about becoming a comic book writer (Mike, please write a guest column for me!).
There are a lot of young artists who think it’s smart to simply copy Image Comics from the nineties and that will give them the art background they need. It won’t. By the way, Image does great books and Jim Valentino has a fantastic nose for good content. I’m sure that Jim would agree that the books Image is doing today are vastly different from the ones they were doing when they revolutionized the comics industry in the nineties. There are a great many young artists who think that copying Todd McFarlane or Rob Lefield will give them the tools they need to be the next Todd McFarlane or Rob Lefield – again, it won’t.
There are no sure fire ways to break into the comic industry as an artist. The industry is filled with self-taught artists-some of these self taught creators are superstars. However, most people can’t simply draw themselves into the field. For the majority of you I think a good art school is a great first step, the first step you will need to establish your own way in a very competitive comics business. How do you choose a good art school?
An art school should not just teach you art, it should equip you to navigate the business. You want a school that will deal with you as an aspiring professional and not just an artist. A lot of schools don’t do that. Some of the best schools have working professionals teaching there. You would think that will be a great place to go right?
Some instructors will share with you every single thing they know. Some won’t. Why won’t they? Because you will be their competition in a very short time. Because they will someday fear you.
Oh. Nobody told you that?
Look, the professional art school is a business. Before I go on let me be clear: I’m not talking about teachers in fine art curricula. Those teachers teach students who want to make art for art’s sake. Those students want to bring their vision to people for no other reason than to make their personal statements. I’m talking about teachers of Illustration, Cartooning, Animation, Graphic Design or any commercial art course. Chances are if your teachers are working professionals they will not share with you all their contacts or their knowledge. Or to put it another way, if you were an rookie on The New York Mets and your position was center field, do you really think the veteran who held that position would tell you all he knew?
Before anybody thinks I prefer the fine arts or their business practices to commercial artists and ours, I don’t. That world (and trust me I know it well) has its own issues. When asked by young art students rather or not I think they should go into commercial or fine arts, I say it’s a personal choice. But here’s the deal, you know the difference between an Artist and a Illustrator? The Artist makes dinner. The Illustrator makes reservations.
So when choosing a school take a look at the teaching staff as well as the clout of the school. The “clout” factor is important. For instance, I attended Pratt Institute. A great many art directors at major advertising agencies were educated at Pratt. That was a real leg up for me when I could sit in somebody’s office and relate to him or her on that level.
What is also important when choosing a school is the age of the instructors. If someone is 90 years old and is running your department that person may be a bit behind the times or worst, so set in their ways that anything current or slightly radical will give them a heart attack.
I think it’s very important to visit a school and (this you will not want to hear) take your Mom or Dad with you. Don’t take a friend! Why? Because while you are checking out the booty ratio your parents will be asking questions that deal with your education.
Before I went to Pratt I was being recruited by Howard University for their art program. Now Howard is a fantastic school but they are not (nor were they back in my day) known for their art program. They gave me a student adviser to walk around with. This “adviser” spent most of his time telling me about the girls on campus and where the cool parties would be held. Now I just could have gotten the wrong adviser but darn if I did not think about going to Howard.
This brings me to another subject about choosing a school: fraternities and sororities.
If you want to join one of these organizations it’s your right to do so. I will just take a moment and share with you something that happened to me during my first week on campus at Pratt. I was approached to see if I wanted to join a group called “Black at Pratt.” I asked what that would entail. Not so much because I didn’t want to join, but being dirt poor I really wanted to know how much the dues were. I was told that the organization was committed to letting people know there were black people at Pratt. I thought there had to be more than that to it, but the girl said ‘…nope, that was it.’ I asked her “Won’t people know we were black when they looked at us?’ She took back the invitation.
Too bad. She had a nice booty.
I tell you this because if you are going to join an organization, make sure it’s worth your time. Get something out of it besides the ability to stare at rival Alpha’s, Delta’s, Omega’s or my favorites, Assholea’s with an “Oh, we badder than you are” look. All this right before you break into a dance off.
College is not cheap, so if you join something make sure it’s something that can go toward your impending résumé. Being able to say “I ate a goldfish out of a gerbil’s butt during Hell Week” won’t really add anything to your college achievements – unless you are being interviewed by a gerbil for a job. Then you have something to relate to as I mentioned before … and maybe a date.
Here is my not-so-vague point: choose a school that will benefit you as a professional. Know your goal when you get in there and then do everything to achieve that goal. Remember these schools are not your friends. After you have been accepted you are paying them to teach you.
You are paying them. If they were your friends, then school would be free.
These are some of the things I think you need to look for in a good art school: clout, career-minded instructors, and relationships.
If during a school visit the instructors are not forthcoming on questions you have concerning your career, that is a red flag. If they don’t give a hoot about you when they are trying to make an impression on behalf of the school, how will you be treated when you are in their class? While at the school check out the senior class and their artwork. If you feel that your work is just as good as theirs (be honest with yourself) then that is not the school for you. Ask about graduates and what kind of success the school has within your chosen field. What kind of relationships does the school have with companies that could hire you? A school’s relationship is very important.
One of the most connected schools out there is The Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) in New York City. F.I.T. is so connected in the fashion industry that major companies and designers go there looking for talent as well as a lot of the industry talent teaches there. That is clout.
Keeping the above criteria in mind, here are my top picks:
1. Cooper Union. The reason this beat out Pratt is because it’s a free school. Yes, I said free! But, before you get all bug eyed, this is a world-class school that receives thousands of applications a year. You know how many people get in? Ninety as in 90. That’s a 9 then a 0. Not 90 percent. 90.
2. Pratt Institute. Still the best in my book and that’s not just because I went there.
3. School Of Visual Arts. Some of the most respected professionals in the world teach there.
4. Art Center. The best booty on the west coast.*
5. F.I.T. Very connected and if you are a straight guy that goes there-JACKPOT!!
6. Rhode Island School of Design. A great no nonsense school. Bring a coat.
7. The Joe Kubert School. Maybe the best school to learn cartooning.
8. Parsons School Of Design. Well connected with great relationships.
* Look, Pratt and Art Center are mortal enemies, so I have to get a dig in. They are lucky they made the list at all.
As always everything you have read here is my opinion, so take what I say with a grain of salt. It’s all subjective … all but the following bit of information. Every school on my list and every good art school out there has an admissions test.
That test along with your portfolio and grades will determine rather you get in or not. That’s the very real start to an art career. That introduces you to the thing that will be your constant companion. The one thing you will have to face over and over in any commercial art career … Competition.
You will be up against some very talented artists. That will be the way it is rather you are trying to get into a school or trying to get a job as an artist. Getting in is half the battle; staying in is the other half. Half of the freshmen class at Pratt fails. That’s one out of every two. The odds are even worse when you are a professional.
A thought like that makes you think twice about what you do with you time once you are in school does it not?
I leave you with Pratt Institute’s motto.
BE TRUE TO YOUR WORK AND YOUR WORK WILL BE TRUE TO YOU.
Well, to be fair, I should leave you with Art Center’s motto:
YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT?
Michael Davis is a comics creator and the founder of the Guardian Line series of comics as well as being a television producer and writer. He was a co-founder of Milestone Comics and his artwork has appeared in Wasteland, Green Arrow: Shado, Green Hornet and The Question, among others.